Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2015.
“The famous women had bored her. Their stories were all the same: told they couldn’t; decided to anyway. Because they really wanted to, she wondered, or because they were told not to?”
When sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee’s body is found in the lake of their small Ohio college town, the centre is ripped from her family, leaving a void in the place their middle child once occupied. Lydia’s death disturbs the delicate balancing act that was James and Marilyn’s mixed race marriage, begun at a time when miscegenation was still illegal in many states. With the favourite child gone, Nath and Hannah grapple with their roles in the family, and how the pressure Lydia faced from their parents may have contributed to their sister’s death. For all that Lydia was the axis around which their family dynamic turned, everyone has failed to see something about her that other members of the family have grasped. This realization, and their quest to find what they could have missed in effort to make an incomprehensible tragedy understandable is at the core of this family history.
Despite being somewhat unique in their mid-West town as a mixed-race family in the 1970s, the Lees are essentially a normal family, hiding small, everyday secrets from one another, nothing really scandalous, that together would add up to an understanding of how Lydia could have died. Celeste Ng opens with the line “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” so while the Lees have a brief period of wondering what has happening to Lydia, dreaming the worst and hoping for the best, it is never, for the reader, about whether Lydia will be recovered or return home. As readers, we get see through the eyes of each member of the Lee family, and by combining their perspectives, see the larger picture that they are missing. Ng’s artistry is the way she slowly parcels out these revelations, layering them on top of one another until they form a coherent image of a girl struggling to bear the weight of conflicting expectations.
Like many parents, James and Marilyn vest their hopes in their children, wanting to give them all the things they never had. Though there are three children in the Lee family, it is Lydia who is asked to bear the weight of her mother’s unfulfilled dreams of becoming a doctor, and her father’s deep-seated desire to fit in, even as his race makes him conspicuous wherever he goes. But it is this hope that makes it all but impossible for them to understand why Lydia, who never learned how to swim, might have gone out onto the lake, seemingly alone, one spring night in 1977, and never returned. While Nath and Hannah know things about their sister that their parents have accidentally or willfully overlooked, their perspectives are complicated by conflicting emotions, pulled between love for their sister, and resentment of the way she seemed to magnetically draw their parents’ attention.
Everything I Never Told You perfectly captures a complicated truth about families; they are simultaneously the people we know best, and the people we know least, because we keep the most from them. Even as Marilyn realizes how little she knew her daughter in life, she futilely believes can uncover and understand everything she missed after Lydia is gone. It is a portrait of a family that is at once ordinary, and tragic, and a girl who is born to a life at the intersection of the struggles her parents tried desperately to leave behind. As Celeste Ng peels back the layers one at a time, her novel becomes an autopsy of a family in the aftermath of the death of one of its members.
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